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Park struggles to curb petrified wood theft

As much as 12 tons a year pilfered, study says

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PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK — Signed “Dateless and Desperate,” this letter, like so many that officials here receive regularly, carried pieces of stolen petrified wood and a tale of woe.

“Take these miserable rocks and put them back,” it says. “They have caused pure havoc in my love life.”

The unlucky author isn’t the only visitor to suffer from a supposed curse that goes with stealing this park’s namesake wood.

Nearly 100 letters displayed in the park’s Rainbow Forest Museum attest to the curse — and the guilt — that goes with lifting a souvenir.

But a curse, a potential $325 fine, strongly worded signs and ranger patrols don’t always stop visitors from pilfering small, and occasionally large, pieces of rock.

“One of the reasons the park was established was to protect the resources,” said Bill Parker, a paleontologist and acting chief of interpretation.

Keeping track of one of the largest deposits of petrified wood in the world isn’t easy in the sprawling park. And with 600,000 visitors each year, even a small percentage pinching souvenirs adds up.

One study estimated that 12 tons a year is taken from the park.

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Fighting theft comes down to park employees manning entry and exit stations, rangers patrolling the grounds and volunteers tasked with persuading visitors to think twice before grabbing illegal mementos.

“We tell them, ‘It is other people’s park. It’s your park that you’re stealing from,” said Sharon Baldwin, the park’s fee supervisor. “Don’t take anything. Leave them where they belong so other people can see them,”

But theft isn’t the only issue.

A 2006 Northern Arizona University study found that people aren’t only stealing the wood but also moving it to new locations within the park.

The study didn’t conclude why visitors are picking up pieces and carrying them around before dropping them at other locations, but study director Martha Lee, a forestry professor, said guilt may be the cause.

“Perhaps their conscience is getting the best of them,” she said in an email.

It’s a problem that Baldwin faces each month when she collects 45 to 100 pounds of petrified wood that’s dumped along the road between a sign threatening vehicle inspections and the park exit station.

“As soon as they see the inspection station they start throwing out their pieces of petrified wood,” she said. “It can be from a small piece to a big chunk.”

The biggest chunk she’s found discarded along the road weighed 55 pounds, she said.

But no matter the intentions, once the 225 million-year-old petrified wood is moved it won’t be replaced.

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“Anything that’s been moved can’t be put back,” Parker said. “If we don’t know where it came from originally then it’s out of its scientific context.”

Wood returned by mail, confiscated or found out of place ends up in a pile next to a service road.

The large, haphazard collection ranges from pieces that could be concealed in a hand to those weighing well over 100 pounds.

It’s a pattern park officials hope to break.

Visitors are greeted by an employee cautioning them not to pick up any petrified wood and a reminder that the park belongs to future generations.

Signs throughout the park, as well as handouts, warn that removing petrified wood is prohibited.

And then there’s the guilt display in the Rainbow Forest Museum near the south exit of the park.

Remorseful letters — along with their returned pieces of wood — hang on one wall. A nearby book contains more.

While the letters, which date back decades, may provide entertainment, the goal is warning visitors.

A writer signing off as “Ashamed in California,” for example, blames the stolen wood for illness, marriage trouble and car problems.

“A note of caution to all who will read this letter,” it says. “Not only have I paid the price this last year for my greed, but I will always know in my heart what I did.”

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Anna Consie/Cronkite News Service

Lauren Carter, a ranger at Petrified Forest National Park, stands next to a pile of petrified wood that has been confiscated or returned.

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